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Hasseler Op-Ed: Education a Powerful Weapon for Peace

The following op-ed by Dr. Susan Hasseler, senior vice president for academic affairs and Dean of the College, appears in the Thursday, Sept. 12, issue of the Argus Leader:

My Voice: Education: A powerful weapon for peace
South Africa, South Dakota and beyond
By Dr. Susan Hasseler

The world recently celebrated the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, an individual whose determination, integrity and commitment have made a powerful impact on the world. Like many others, I was delighted to hear the reports that he is recovering from serious health issues and that his long walk to freedom has not yet ended. His resilience in the face of life-threatening illness seems apt for someone so determined and persistent throughout his life.

Having had the privilege of visiting South Africa multiple times and working with educators there, the daily reports on Mandela’s well-being brought back many memories, including a particularly vivid recollection of visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and many others were imprisoned for so many years. As we were guided around the island by a former prisoner, we experienced many moving moments. However, the description of Mandela’s commitment to education was particularly striking to me. I was stunned to learn that not only did Mandela encourage “each one to teach one” in order to build literacy among his fellow prisoners, but that he taught his illiterate Afrikaaner guards to read as well. His commitment to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others extended to those who were oppressing him daily. His capacity to see beyond individual wrong to a bigger moral good still takes one’s breath away.

Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” a weapon that he was willing to put in the hands of all, no matter what side of the conflict they were supporting. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he emphasized the need to “relentlessly pursue” the well-being of all children and young people in South Africa and across the world, in part through excellent educational opportunities. He understood that the walls dividing us are built from fear and ignorance. To break through those barriers, Mandela argued, we need education that fosters clear and respectful communication.

As we begin a new academic year, we have a wonderful opportunity to equip all of our students with the tools that will enable them to break down walls and build bridges. In Sioux Falls, we have the amazing gift of an increasingly diverse school population. Students from more than 57 countries outside of the U.S. who speak more than 70 different languages and dialects and students whose first language is English learn side by side at every grade level. Through the innovative use of technology, high school students are learning languages from and are sharing information with instructors and students from across the world.

At our area colleges and universities, students are expanding on those experiences through learning with international students at their home institutions, by studying abroad and by participating in classes that focus on global perspectives and experiences. At Augustana College, we will be welcoming 145 students from 45 countries outside of the U.S. this year. Last year, more than 200 students participated in study-abroad experiences that took them anywhere from Guatemala to Ghana to China. Last fall, 485 students and faculty and staff participated in Community Service Day and hundreds more participated in community service activities throughout the year that included connecting with people in Sioux Falls who have lived in countries outside of the U.S. Learning with and from people around the world has made our academic programs even stronger and has better prepared our students to be a force for peace wherever they go. 

Simply bringing people together, however, does not guarantee that barriers will be broken or bridges built. Learning how to listen and ask questions in a respectful way, developing an understanding of others’ history and culture, challenging assumptions and seeing the world from another person’s perspective, critically sorting through information that can be contradictory and conflicting, and celebrating new ideas and experiences are all things that can and should happen in educational programs that are designed to promote understanding and peace.

South Dakota’s growing role in providing goods and services to an international market and serving as a welcoming home for new U.S. citizens from all over the world is presenting us all with wonderful new opportunities. Programs in our K-12 schools and colleges and universities that develop the ability to learn with and from the global community need to be strengthened and expanded so that the next generation will be able to increase our influence in this dynamic and changing world. Continued strong support for K-12 and higher education is needed to ensure that we are providing all of our young people with the most powerful weapon available to bring about lasting peace.